Welcome to Garden Zone, the monthly newsletter produced by Extension Master Gardeners of Mecklenburg County. ​​We encourage you to share Garden Zone with friends and neighbors! They can subscribe here

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What's on your wish list?

Have you made any 2020 resolutions? Consider putting gardening at the top of your list! It can help you achieve some of the other resolutions, such as slowing down from a hectic pace, living a simpler life, exercising and losing weight.

We like the list suggested by Mother Nature Network:

1. If you’re not a gardener, become one.
2. Reduce your lawn area.
3. Go native.
4. Start a compost bin.
5. Add one new sustainable method to your gardening routine.

We'll add 2 more: Start a garden journal to track what you plant when along with the results. Take photos. They're a great way to capture successes and what happened along the way (e.g., weather impacts).

Watch this video!

You won't regret it! It captures Lindie Wilson's garden over the course of a year. The front garden gets full sun; the back garden is mostly shade.

  • You'll get ideas for plants you might like to see in your garden.
  • You'll see the value of photos in documenting what you've done during the year.

Lindie is an Extension Master Gardener Emeritus in Mecklenburg. The video was produced by Extension Master Gardener volunteer Joe Swift.

The photo below is a Crocus speciosus, an autumn-flowering cormous perennial, in Lindie's garden. You can also spot a metallic-green sweat bee (genus Agapostemon).  

Enjoy the video! 


Photo by Joe Swift

Help birds survive cold winter weather

As we buckle down for cold winter weather, don’t forget about the birds! You can help keep our feathered friends safe and sound in frigid weather.

Stock up 
Before bad weather hits, stock up on winter bird supplies such as seed, extra feeders and even extra birdhouses.

Buy nutritious food 
Birds need rich sources of fat and calories to combat low temperatures and severe storms. Suet, nuts and high-oil seeds such as nyjer, black-oil sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts are all great choices.

Tip: "First time bird feeders can be inclined to just grab the least expensive bag of bird seed on the shelf," said Angie Keane of Audubon Park wild bird food. "However, budget blends are typically best suited for ground-feeding birds like quail or doves. Most people tend to want to attract perching songbirds. They prefer premium blends with a higher percentage of sunflower seeds and nuts."

Choose feeders carefully 
Not all feeders are created equal. Some are better than others at keeping seed dry. This is important because if the seed gets wet, it is susceptible to fungal and bacterial growth. Several good feeder choices are hopper and tube feeders.

Leave the bird houses  
If you have them, leave them up. While it's true the birds aren't nesting during the cold months, they will use birdhouses for roosting on freezing nights — sometimes with more than one bird going into a single house.

Tip: Add some roosting material such as dry grass or wood shavings to the bottom of your house(s) to help the birds stay warm. Avoid moisture-absorbing materials such as sawdust.

Be sure to provide a water source. Don't worry about the birds bathing in it and freezing to death. They won't get their feathers wet when the air temperature is below freezing. Depending on how cold it is, you might want to empty the water source at night to keep the water from freezing.

See more tips. You can also consult with a local bird store.


Photo by Sally Robertson, Flickr, CC by 2.0

January in the garden 

Whether you're staying warm indoors this month and gardening vicariously through books and catalogs or whether you're outside getting things in order, here are a few January garden tips you don’t want to forget:

Perennials, annuals & bulbs  

  • Don’t forget to water! Winter drought can be just as severe in the winter as it was last summer. If the ground freezes, any moisture that would have been available is inaccessible to roots.
  • For camellias, don’t forget to rake up fallen blooms to discourage camellia petal blight.
  • Sow seeds of larkspur, bachelor buttons and poppies now. You can also start seeds indoors for coleus, alyssum, impatiens, verbena, geranium and petunia.

Lawns & landscaping

  • Eliminate hard-to-mow spaces, like sharp angles or bed borders, to decrease lawn maintenance.
  • Avoid heavy traffic on dormant lawns. Dry grass is easily broken and the crown of the plant may be severely damaged or killed.

Trees, shrubs & groundcovers

  • Prune fruit trees and woody ornamentals that bloom on current season growth, such as althea, buddleia, crepe myrtle, hydrangea and vitex.
  • Save the spring-bloomers until just after they’ve bloomed.
  • Remove dead, diseased or storm-damaged limbs.
  • Protect broadleaf evergreens with blankets or burlap during periods of extreme cold. Fertilize them in winter or early spring before growth begins.

See our complete list of garden tasks for January


Starting winter seeds... outdoors! 

Starting seeds inside during the winter is always fun but did you realize that there are many, many seeds that can be planted outside in the winter?

Most seeds need a cold period (stratification) to help them germinate when temperatures start to warm up. Why not plant some seeds outside and let nature take its course! These can include vegetables, herbs and flowers. It’s cheap, easy and fun.

  • You can buy seeds almost anywhere but make sure they are for winter planting (organic preferred).
  • Check seed packets for mention of fall planting, stratification, scarification… these all indicate the need for a cold period.
  • Some seed packets will also provide a map color coded by planting times. The table below will provide some choices but there are many types and varieties to choose from.
  • You can prepare your seeds in various containers using your seed starter potting mix, water, label and place them outside and forget about it -- no further watering or fertilizing needed.
  • You can use a variety of plastic containers including gallon milk jugs that have been cut around their midsection leaving a small section uncut (creating a mini greenhouse).
  • You can also use toilet paper rolls and then plant it in its entirety later.
  • Whatever you decide to use, make sure you have holes cut in the bottom for drainage. Seeds will rot if they sit in drenched soil. See what happens and what germinates. You may be pleasantly surprised!

If you want more information on this fun topic, listen to a recent Joe Gardener podcast. It’s about 45 minutes long and will certainly get you motivated during these cold winter months in the Piedmont.


You’re getting warmer!

As a gardener, you're likely familiar with the concept of plant hardiness zones which are mapped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Zones are defined by the average lowest temperature for the area, with a 10-degree range for each zone, and 5-degree range for each half-zone.

For example, zone 7b has an average annual low temperature of 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit, while zone 8a has an average annual low temperature of 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most recent data
The USDA reviews climate data over time to define hardiness zones. The most recent zone map was released in 2012, and included temperature data collected from 1976-2005. Compared to the earlier map produced in 1990, most areas in the U.S. have now shifted into the next highest half zone, meaning that average low temperatures are about 5 degrees warmer overall. Although scientists caution that this may not be definitive proof of climate change, the new map zones are influenced by the inclusion of longer time periods, data from more recent years, and more sophisticated tracking technology. Ongoing temperature tracking and data analysis will ultimately shed additional light on the climate change discussion.

How is Mecklenburg affected?
Most local gardeners have long considered Mecklenburg to be zone 7b, but did you realize that much of the southern part of the county is now in zone 8a? That’s right -- Matthews and Mint Hill are zone 7b, but Pineville and Steel Creek are in warmer zone 8a.

Make sure you are aware of your zones, and specific conditions within your own yard, to help your plants thrive.

Find your hardiness zone by entering your zip code in this interactive map


Master Gardeners in the Community

After a career in the power-generation industry followed by two decades raising her sons, Margaret Genkins looked at her two acres in south Charlotte with an eye to making a positive environmental difference. To educate herself on gardening and nature, she completed the Extension Master Gardener (EMG) training in late 2008 and the UNC-Charlotte Native Plant Studies program in 2012. 

Over the past 10 years, Margaret has worked to improve her landscape ecologically as well as aesthetically.
The turf area was reduced incrementally and new natural areas and planting beds were created. As plants, including all invasives, were removed, she installed native plants. Native ornamental grasses and ground covers were combined with dry creek beds to help with drainage in sloped areas.

Margaret is a trailblazer in her neighborhood where lawn, and a lot of it, is the norm.
​“I’m not a native plants purist and I don’t want to distress my neighbors, but I want to demonstrate that you can have a landscape full of native plants that is ecologically sensitive while also attractive. Some think an eco-friendly garden must be wild and messy, and that’s not the case.”

Margaret is a trailblazer in other ways.

  • As an EMG volunteer, in 2013 she was asked to be on the team to create a new NCSU Extension Master Gardener Handbook. Throughout 2014 into 2015, she helped write and edit the sections on native plants, landscape design, botany and woody ornamentals.
  • During her tenure as an active EMG, she most enjoyed the numerous opportunities to teach about gardening in our community.
  • She held numerous leadership positions in the Mecklenburg County EMG volunteer program and was Mecklenburg Extension volunteer of the year in 2016.

Margaret’s advice to other gardeners:
Know what you have in your yard. Can you identify your plants? Do you know their characteristics? What are your soil conditions? Then determine what function and aesthetics you want from your landscape. After you know what you have and what you want, start with small changes. Use plants that are environmentally beneficial. Also ask yourself if maintaining all your turf is worth it or if you can reduce your lawn to save time and money and improve the ecology of your landscape.

Margaret is now an Emeritus EMG in Mecklenburg County. She volunteers at the afterschool Garden Bud program at Winterfield Elementary. She’s also a speaker on the EMG team offering a series of popular gardening classes at the Matthews Public Library.


Margaret with her two sons and the grandpup.

Upcoming events! 

  • Wing Haven's 2020 Lecture Series has several exciting programsJanuary-March. 260 Ridgewood Ave. Prices and times vary. For details
  • How to grow your own microgreens at home. Sat., Jan. 11. Two-hour session. McMillian Greenhouse, UNCC Botanical Gardens, 9090 Craver Rd. $35 for nonmembers/$30 for members. To register
  • Andre Michaux Live.  Charlie Williams will deliver his one-man play about the famous French botanist who discovered the bigleaf magnolia west of the Catawba in 1789. Sun., Jan. 12, 2-4 p.m. NC Native Plant Society--Southern Piedmont Chapter, Reedy Creek Nature Preserve Shelter 3; 2900 Rocky River Rd. Free and open to the public. It's also a great way to meet native plant enthusiasts!
  • MLK (Sun)Day of Service: Clean-Up at Iswa Nature Preserve. Sun., Jan. 19, noon-3 p.m. 9909 Wilkinson Blvd. For details

It's our anniversary! 

Garden Zone was launched a year ago! Drop us a line about what you've liked best and what you'd like to see covered in 2020. Simply reply to this email. We'd appreciate it! And Happy New Year! 

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The Mecklenburg Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (EMGV) program operates under the Mecklenburg Center of the NC Cooperative Extension Service (NCCES), a part of NC State University and NC A&T State University. 

NCCES is a part of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

NC State University and N.C. A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity and prohibit discrimination and harassment regardless of age, color, disability, family and marital status, gender identify, genetic information, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and veteran status. NC State, N.C. A&T, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.